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Sibelius: Symphony No. 5

Jean Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony’s popularity has remained intact since its premiere on December 8, 1915. “Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of the greatest experiences!”, wrote Sibelius during the genesis of the work.“Their call is the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo.A gentle refrain that sounds like the crying of a small child.Nature’s mysticism and world-weariness!The final theme of the Fifth Symphony: Legato in the trumpets!” His Fifth Symphony is one of the really great late-Romantic symphonies.At the time of writing this work, the composer was going through a difficult time in his life. The context is particularly interesting because this symphony was commissioned by the Finnish government and written for Sibelius’s own fiftieth birthday. His stature as a “national hero” was such that his birthday was declared a national holiday. Despite his unprecedented level of popularity and acceptance in his homeland, the composer was experiencing inner struggles with music composition, prompting the question, was he composing the way he was “supposed” to write?

Sibelius was keenly aware that composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg were producing strikingly modern new works, and Sibelius could sense that some people were starting to regard his music as old-fashioned. But Sibelius’s Fifth became (and continues to be) among his most popular works. With the aim of finding a better way of saying what he needed to say in the right musical terms, Sibelius revised his Fifth Symphony twice. Tonight we are performing the last version, from 1919, in which the composer gave the work, in his own words, “a more human form, more down-to-earth, more vivid.” He brought it closer to his heart, to what he wanted to hear.

The work is divided into three movements, and it follows a symmetrical structure: Slow-Fast / Slow / Fast-Slow. The first movement begins like a misty morning, evolving slowly, with calls from nature bringing our attention to birdlike chants. It develops into an energetic representation of something furious, as if powerful waters are nearby. Suddenly, a melancholic, slightly sad bassoon solo floats over the strings, suggesting a loss of its companion. The trumpets and trombones have been patiently waiting to make their appearance, and when the fast tempo arrives they finally get to enjoy their supremacy over the orchestra. A burst of energy builds into a frenetic closing section. The second movement is a contemplative interlude, which begins with a calm chorale in the winds accompanied by pizzicato strings. It takes advantage of the major second interval, with the notes D–C, resolving to D–B, a minor third. This motive first appears in the bassoons, later in the oboes. Expansions and contractions of tempo take the movement to an abrupt ending, connecting it, “attacca,” to the last movement. The third movement begins with the second violins and violas playing a very energetic motive, later joined by the first violins. The timpani, doubled by the cellos, present a repeated note (G) seven times, which seems to fight against the hectic motive in the rest of the strings. Suddenly, the frantic activity arrives at a beautiful, tender motive sung by the horns, in the way of a passacaglia. The woodwinds and cellos sing a hopeful melody above this, and eventually reminiscences of the movement’s beginning arrive again. A quiet section, with the upper strings playing “ricochet” (with the bow bouncing), brings the woodwind countermelody back, leading up to the final, slow section “Un pochettino largamente,” with intense octaves in the violins, violas, and cellos. A series of climaxes is built in a remarkable way, and the trumpets, marked “nobile” (noble), finally arrive at the swan’s song announced previously by the horns. The end of the symphony presents the listener with a mystery: suddenly six powerful chords are presented, almost announcing that something else will happen shortly. And it will. Sibelius wrote two more symphonies after this one.

For 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets,  3 trombones, timpani, and strings

Composed 1914–15, revised 1916 and 1919

First performed December 8, 1915 by Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer

Published by Wilhelm Hansen (Copenhagen, 1921)

Duration about 35 minutes 

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